Only in the modern day would McLovin get laid and not a beating. In years past, playing Dungeons & Dragons was as bad as smoking crack on the after-school special scale of things; today, we’re in the middle of a board game renaissance. In the '80s, we had the panty- and tech-obsessed flies-on-the-wall in Sixteen Candles who couldn’t imagine talking to a girl; the '90s gave us Office Space’s Milton Waddams and his stutterous Swingline obsession. On TV, geeks were the butt of the joke—Minkus and Urkel set the standard. Now we’ve got Big Bang Theory topping the charts (bad as it is) and Community’s Abed getting the girl. But it’s all in jeopardy. There’s a sweaty, lonely, sexist underbelly at the grassroots of geekery—the nerds of the nerds—that’s threatening the cool we’ve spent decades cultivating. And thanks to digital interconnectivity, the trolls at the geek fringe are more of a danger to society than they get credit for.
This digital interconnectivity, lauded for its ability to let us group around big issues and cultural petit-fours alike, also gives us anorexia encouragement, cannibalism, Buzzfeed, and guys who get off by climbing naked onto man-sized balloons (seriously, that’s a thing). Web communities become echo chambers where prejudices amplify. It’s like getting all your news from Fox or StormFront—stay long enough and you start believing that white people are just better. Tim Burke, a professor of History at Swarthmore University who studies virtual worlds, says that the Internet gives movements the “ability to snowball with tremendous speed. The emotional feedback is intense.”
Travel to any nerd-dominated forum—SomethingAwful or Life, the Universe, and Everything on GameFaqs—and witness this snowball in action over the “plight” of the nice guy. They listen to their female friends’ problems, going out of their way to be compassionate and are rewarded with friendship instead of sex. Then they get on the Internet and rail against their love interests. Says one Redditor, “Like many of you, I’m just another fucking nice guy. People walk all over me, girls only acknowledge me for favors, and I never ask for anything in return. … I can’t be that asshole that girls like.” “Why,” asks one ‘nice guy’ user, “do girls arbitrarily decide what guy to fuck? Instead of going ‘This guy is funny, smart, and a great person. I think I’ll fuck him,’ they usually decide to fuck some random douchebag with no redeeming qualities instead.” “Smaller brains,” replies one user. “Women are so stupid,” adds another. A third contends that “what it boils down to is the girl is very immature and insecure, among other things … that’s why the feminist movement exists.”
Some fraction of these dudes will “man up” and click over to a Pick-Up-Artist site where they can learn tricks that will totally trick girls into sleeping with them. You might remember how ridiculous the show on VH1 was, but PUA has an army of adherents. On Pick-Up-Artist-Forum.com, one user says he was “hanging out with a HB7 [Hot Babe, 7 out of 10]” and as she’s talking, he begins “wiping [his] face near [his] mouth and looking at her in bewilderment.” When she asks what’s up, he implies that she’s been spitting on him. Why? “Women can’t help but feel embarrassed if they were spitting on you while talking, so technically we are performing a DLV [display low value] on her to make her feel like shit …[it] works wonders.” That’s objectification at its geekiest—as long as you’ve studied, inputs will equal putting out. It’s an attitude that, in these male-dominated corners of the Internet, develops into full-blown misogyny.
Commenters on practically any message board are liable to respond to women with “tits or get the fuck out,” denigrate gays, and video game competitors joke about raping their female opponents during fighting game tournaments and then contend that sort of language is just part of the scene. According to Burke, the justifications are standardized—“they say ‘it’s not really sexist, it’s just the way we talk,’ and that ‘gay doesn’t really refer to homosexuals or imply homophobia.’” Some of that may be true, he says, but the misogyny is undeniable. “You can see it in the intensity of reaction to female voices. That’s real.” When an impressionable loner-geek mixes PUA’s disordered approach to women with the feminist hate and lady-bashing, we lose him and get a Men’s Rights Activist. It's such a problem that lady nerds launched whole projects just to shed some light on it. Anita Sarkeesian Kickstarted a web-series on misogyny in videogames, and the reaction was so rabidly, vehemently antagonistic that she was able to give a TedxWomen talk about online harrassment, cyber-mobs, and rape culture group-think just based on the experience. Traditional feminists, for their part, haven't started a counter to the Men's Rights Movement, because that's what they've been fighting all along.
Geeks may go the other way and join a community of alienation, like ALonelyLife, where a meme about being forever alone meets reality. RealDoll enthusiasts have built up a fraternity wherein it’s acceptable to marry silicone simulacra. Bronies are grown men who love and bond over the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in large part because of how friendly and accepting the pony characters are, how welcoming their world is. Brony communities invented ‘bronyspeak’ and use codes of community-enforced niceness so that ‘nopony’ has to suffer social rejection. Anime ‘waifu’ adherents have rejected the “impurity” of 3D love for the 2D variety. None of these folks are necessarily hurting anyone, but they’re messing with nerdom’s social fabric, pushing it farther away from society at large and making it more repugnant all around.
The corruption of whole swathes of male geekdom is distressing for every nerd with a job and a life who doesn’t need comic book or video game characters to rock a double-D endowment, who's uncomfortable with widespread mistreatment of women on the web, who knows that right now, the biggest entertainment industry by far is games, and that the coolest job anyone can have is at Google. We had gotten to the point where we could be openly geeky without being stereotyped as neckbearded, sweaty basement-dwellers, but those anime-pillow-loving guys are holding us back.
As the Internet ages, Burke says, we’ll get “people choosing to associate in smaller communities with smaller and more particular cultural or social interests.” The upshot of folks becoming basement-trolls is the loss of their social capital—when contingents of geeks break off from greater nerdery and cloister themselves into increasingly antisocial, niche cliques, they lose the tools to live in society at large, to communicate collectively, and to affect social and political institutions. Burke says that the loss of social capital across a society is the “classic fear among social thinkers,” but it also presents a problem when it’s just chunks of a social demographic. Nerds writ large lose some of their power when factions act poorly (the power that lets us stop bills like CISPA) but that could be the least of their troubles.
What if some of the worst trends of nerdom run amok? Look at Japan—from the groping that’s so endemic in its public spaces that authorities have given up enforcement (they’ve created male/female subways) to vending machines that dispense soiled women’s underwear, something’s gone terribly wrong. They have a pandemic of hikikomori, guys who feel so divorced from the social scene that they leave it altogether for the solitude of their rooms and computers, all born of the same alienation that our nerds engage in. Japanese men are having sex and kids in smaller numbers than they ever have—one in four Japanese men in their 30s are virgins, and have given up on real relationships for videogame women or pillow wives—so much so that it’s a national crisis. Men in the United States have taken a different route, frustrated opprobrium rather than apathy, but the land of the rising sun is proof positive that, whether or not you care if geek is cool, trends like ours can go South like a carpetbagger.